I mention it a lot, talk about it and refer to it many times when I write about Business Improvement, implementing Lean programmes and Lego Serious Play. What is ‘it' - staff engagement.
It dominates the conversation many times because simply it is the make or break of the consulting work I do. So what the hell is 'staff engagement'? What does it really mean? Let’s understand it a bit more rather than let it become a cliche term that we use but not really do anything about. With a bit more thought and clarity, what can business leaders do to improve it…..
There are a number of specific definitions, I encourage you to explore and google it yourself. When I took a few minutes to see how others have defined it, the following was a nice summary:
“Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organisation, and put discretionary effort into their work”. This comes from the team at Custom Insight - as they discuss the importance of employee engagement.
I like this definition as it clearly leads towards the rationale on why it is critical for business leaders to take action around engagement. Enabling employees (staff, team members - I never know which is the best term) to feel passionate about their jobs. As a leader how often do we pause and explore with individuals the reasons why they do the job that they do, what aspects do they enjoy, what makes them get out of bed with a positive mindset.
In a previous role, I had a boss who was passionate about allowing people to have ‘10% play’. This wasn’t about going out to play golf or have an extra long lunch once a week. It was about giving us the flexibility to have a pet project, something that may not be directly part of our core role, but a piece of work that drove us to move out of our comfort zones, learn something new, challenge ourselves. In that particular situation resulted in a new service that increased the community engagement, it also led to numerous national innovation awards and international speaking invitations. So that 10% of ‘play’ not only can result in some awesome outcomes, but also significantly increase the engagement for the whole job. That kind of stuff becomes infectious across the team. That aside, there are many other perspectives and definitions that can effectively describe ‘employee engagement’.
What is really important is that you put in the time to create clarity amongst the team on how you define it, so you can put together a plan and do something about it.
Question one: How do you define Employee Engagement in your organisation?
Research has shown that 92% of business leaders feel engagement is critical for the overall performance (and success) of their business. To back this up, Gallup supports this when it has demonstrated an increase of 20% in the productivity of an organisation with an engaged workforce
Now we have looked into what ‘engagement’ means, let’s make a distinction from what it is not, and this might frustrate leaders out there. Engagement might not necessarily mean satisfaction! Kevin Kruse in Forbes Magazine wrote about how keeping the team happy can and might be quite different to engaged. This goes for satisfaction as well. Hence if you are planning to measure engagement, make sure you are asking the right questions as it might not be what you think it is.
Staff or team engagement needs to be an important part of the company strategy. Especially when there has been a large movement towards working from home (WFH) or flexible work arrangements. Engagement and trust becomes even more valuable and crucial to a business success.
Engagement is something that just happens when things are going well. You might have the textbook strategic plan, it might be well documented and communicated. However, it needs to have some sort of engagement plan. Like any relationship, you need to work on it constantly. Sometimes this comes naturally and sometimes you do need to schedule in time so that you (and the leadership team) can actively work on it. Engagement should become a way of being. A strategy if you want to get clever with words. It is something that needs to be consistently on the radar for leadership. It isn’t a project that has a start or finish date, or an outcome. Yes, continuously improve, measure it, discuss it - but if you see this having an expiry date, I have bad news for you.
We have had a look at how others have defined it, that is a useful starting point. But why not put your own story to it. How does your leadership team view it, middle management, front line staff - everyone will have an opinion. Emotionally connected to the business or company or emotionally connected to the customer / client. As an ex-health professional I can resonate about being emotionally connected to the cause / patient - but not necessarily to the organisation I worked for. Is this a big issue?
If you want to work on it, improve it - first you have to measure it. Again, not as a once off, but continuously (there is a common theme here right?).
Leadership needs to be committed, again it is the same approach as your business improvement strategy. This is building and developing and in some cases creating part of the culture in your business. People matter, that is the message that you as a leader are trying to communicate, trying to be a role model. It is not something that you can delegate - yes get people involved, but there needs to be a clear connection to the actions and you as a leader.
Question Two: Are you prepared for the long game?
After spending some time making sense of the term ‘engagement’ and making sure it is an indelible part of your strategy. What can you actually do to improve engagement and what are the barriers to success? To understand what you can do about engagement, I have done the hard work and sought out some ideas that experts have identified as the barriers to engagement. Thankfully these are remarkably simple and similar to everything else we do around business success. To be fair, this does not surprise me at all.
Issues such as the lack of clarity, bureaucracy, poor working relationships and habits are at the forefront of the problem. I have discussed the benefits of creating clarity - this might be the direction the company is heading, the values or even purpose of the team / business. Sounds simple, but it is amazing on how often this is not achieved - remember less than 50% of Small or Medium sized businesses (SMEs) do not have a documented plan, so having clarity would be very hard to achieve!
A balance of work and the flexibility to fit a personal life is always a fine balance to achieve - particularly in a post Covid-19 environment when a WFH policy may have been created quickly without significant long-term planning. So it may pay just to check in with your team to see how they all feel about how their work and life is balanced.
Bureaucracy and the appearance of poor decision making can be a sign of growth or the nature of a large organisation, but it doesn’t really have to be this way. Most businesses in New Zealand are not that complex, yet we have a great knack of making a system rather complicated with checks and balances. Most of these have origins to poor individual performance, the result is a complex system created for the ‘what if’ moments.
Personal alignment to the organisation is also perceived as a significant barrier to positive engagement. This may be in the form of an individual's development plan. Again, does it have clarity on expectations, was it agreed or directed? When individuals succeed, how does the team celebrate the small and big achievements. What is the culture of celebration. This is one flag I often look for to understand the true culture of a business I am involved with. Acknowledgement from peers is such a powerful tool, it doesn’t need to be expensive, spending $100’s in vouchers etc, simply saying thank you for the effort, quality of the work at the beginning of your weekly team meeting might create the desired outcome.
By understanding what the barriers are, it is a lot easier to make a plan or set actions to get yourself quickly ahead of your competitors. Employee engagement is such a big issue, most individuals are simply not resonating with their job or organisation. We don’t have it as a priority in the strategic plan, therefore not measuring it or keeping people accountable to succeed in this area. Yet the benefits (apart from productivity) are massive.
Question Three: What plans or actions do you have in place to improve employee engagement?